Parental alienation

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Parental alienation is a social dynamic when a child expresses unjustified hatred or unreasonably strong dislike of one parent, making access by the rejected parent difficult or impossible.[1] These feelings may be influenced by negative comments by the other parent or grandparents, generally occurring due to divorce or separation. Characteristics, such as lack of empathy and warmth, between the rejected parent and child are other indicators.[2] The term does not apply in cases of actual child abuse, when the child rejects the abusing parent to protect themselves.[3] Parental alienation is controversial in legal and mental health professions, both generally and in specific situations.[4][5] Terms related to parental alienation include child alienation, pathological alignments, visitation refusal, brainwashing, pathological alienation,[6] the toxic parent and parental alienation syndrome[7] though the last term is a specific formulation of a medical syndrome proposed by psychiatrist Richard Gardner that is not well accepted.[8]

Although initially thought to be an outcome of difficult divorces, parental alienation or estrangement between parents and their adolescent or adult children is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in affluent modern society. An inflated sense of entitlement and an increasing level of narcissism in college students are thought to be contributing to parental alienation in families with and without a history of divorce. [9] [10]


First described in 1976 as "pathological alignment", the dynamic refers to a situation in which a child unreasonably rejects a non-custodial parent.[8] Richard A. Gardner proposed parental alienation syndrome in the 1980s based on his clinical experience with the children of divorcing parents. Since that time, other researchers have suggested focusing less on diagnosing a syndrome and more on what has been described as the "alienated child", and the dynamics of the situation that have contributed to the alienation.[5][11] In this view, alienation is seen as a breakdown of attachment between parent and child, and may be caused by multiple factors. The behaviors of all family members, including those of the alienated parent, may lead to the family dysfunction and rejection of a parent.[12][13] The evaluation of all contributing factors and all possible remedies are recommended in evaluating cases where children have estranged from a parent.[5][14]

Parental alienation lacks a single definition and its existence, etiology, characteristics and in particular the description of the term as a syndrome has been subject to still-unresolved debate. Some formulations of the concept have emphasized the role of an alienating parent, termed variously the "programming" parent and "embittered-chaotic parent".[8] More recent descriptions, influenced by the research of Kelly and Johnston, have proposed a more complex analysis, in which all family members may play a role. This "systems-based" view acknowledges that a child may be alienated from one parent without "alienating" behaviour by the other parent.[5][8] Based on an empirical study, it also suggests that alienating behaviours by both parents is the norm in high-conflict divorces. Rejected parents, generally fathers, tend to lack warmth and empathy with the child, engage in rigid parenting and critical attitudes, and are passive, depressed, anxious and withdrawn - characteristics which may encourage rejection. The parent that the child aligns with - the aligned parent - may engage in alienating behaviours, by undermining the other parent: these behaviours may be conscious and deliberate or alternatively may reflect a lack of awareness on the effect of their actions on their children. Direct alienating behaviours occur when one parent actively undermines the other parent, such as making derogatory remarks about the other parent or telling the child that the other parent is responsible for the separation or the cause of financial difficulties. Indirect alienation behaviours occur when one parent fails to support access or contact with the other parent, or tacitly accepts the child's negative behaviour and comments towards the other parent.[5][8]

Most of the peer reviewed publications on the subject have been in the form of descriptions and definitions. Some empirical research has been done, though the quality of the studies vary widely and the research in the area is still underdeveloped.[15] Sample selection bias is an obvious problem in many of the studies. E.g. when alienated children have been interviewed, it is likely that the children reached have been among the most severely alienated and suffered children. The beliefs of judges, lawyers and mental health professionals have been cited extensively in peer reviewed literature.[8]

Professional acceptance[edit]

A survey of mental health and legal professionals indicated that there is moderate support for the existence of parental alienation, but reluctance to accept the concept of parental alienation syndrome.[8] William Bernet argued for the inclusion of parental alienation disorder, a diagnosis related to parental alienation, in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which was released in 2013. His conception makes reference to parental alienation syndrome and a variety of other descriptions of behaviours he believes represent the underlying concept of parental alienation disorder.[7] Despite lobbying by proponents,[16] in December 2012, the proposal was rejected.[17] However, some have suggested that the general idea of PAS is covered in the DSM-V under a closely related diagnosis: "Parent-Child-Relational Problem." For example, the child’s perception of an alienated parent "may include negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other (parent), and unwarranted feelings of estrangement." [18] [19]

In a survey at the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in 2010, 98 % of the 300 respondents agreed with the question, "Do you think that some children are manipulated by one parent to irrationally and unjustifiably reject the other parent?".[20]


Realistic estrangement is a different phenomenon from "pathological alienation". The former is an understandable refusal by a child to see an abusive parent, while the latter is emotionally harmful and unjustified.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Warshak, R. A. (2003). Bringing Sense to Parental Alienation: A Look at the Disputes and the Evidence. Family Law Quarterly, 37, 273-301.
  2. ^ Warshak, R. A. (2010). Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing. New York: Harper Collins.
  3. ^ Warshak, R. A. (2002). Misdiagnosis of Parental Alienation Syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 20, 31-52.
  4. ^ Warshak, R. A. (2001). Current Controversies Regarding Parental Alienation Syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 19, 29-59.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Bala, N; Fidler B; Goldberg D; Houston C (2007). "Alienated Children and Parental Separation: Legal Responses from Canada's Family Courts". Queens Law Journal 33: 79–138. 
  6. ^ Warshak, R. A. (2003). Bringing Sense to Parental Alienation: A Look at the Disputes and the Evidence. Family Law Quarterly, 37, 273-301.
  7. ^ a b Bernet, W (2008). "Parental Alienation Disorder and DSM-V". The American Journal of Family Therapy 36 (5): 349–366. doi:10.1080/01926180802405513. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Bow, JN; Gould JW; Flens JR (2009). "Examining Parental Alienation in Child Custody Cases: A Survey of Mental Health and Legal Professionals". The American Journal of Family Therapy 37 (2): 127–145. doi:10.1080/01926180801960658. 
  9. ^ Agllias, K. (2013). Family Estrangement
  10. ^ Twenge, J. (2008). Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.
  11. ^ Jaffe, PG; Lemon NKD; Poisson SE (2002). Child Custody & Domestic Violence. SAGE Publications. pp. 52–54. ISBN 978-0-7619-1826-4. 
  12. ^ Ackerman MJ (2001). Clinician's guide to child custody evaluations. New York: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 73–82. ISBN 0-471-39260-X. 
  13. ^ Waldron, KH; Joanis DE (1996). "Understanding and Collaboratively Treating Parental Alienation Syndrome". American Journal of Family Law 10: 121–133. 
  14. ^ Sparta, SN; Koocher GP (2006). Forensic Mental Health Assessment of Children and Adolescents. Oxford University Press. pp. 83, 219–221. ISBN 978-0-19-514584-7. 
  15. ^ Hands, A. J. & Warshak, R. A. (2011). Parental Alienation Among College Students. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 39, 431-443.
  16. ^ Rotstein, Gary (February 15, 2010). "Mental health professionals getting update on definitions". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2010-03-02. 
  17. ^ "American Psychiatric Association Board of Trustees Approves DSM-5-Diagnostic manual passes major milestone before May 2013 publication". American Psychiatric Association. 1 December 2012. 
  18. ^ Kay, B. (2013). Barbara Kay: Teaching children to hate the ex. National Post, May 23, 2013.
  19. ^ Franklin, R. (2013). Limited Definition of parental alientation syndome included in the DSM-V. National Parent's Organization, May 26, 2013.
  20. ^ Lorandos, D., W. Bernet and S.R. Sauber (2013). Overview of Parental Alienation. In Lorandos, D., W. Bernet and S.R. Sauber (2013) Parental alienation. The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. Charles C Thomas, Springfield.